Friday, September 24, 2004

There are two faces in the utterly fascinating documentary Control Room that linger long after it is over. One is of Samir Khader, a producer for Al-Jazeera, a man who seems constantly to be smoking and who has the particularly pungent manner of a scheming Machiavelli. The other is of Lt Josh Rushing, a painfully earnest (and endearing) young American, who, by the end of the movie, promises that he will do more work in the future so that "the American public learns more about Palestine". In a way these two men, I think represent the two extremes.Rushing seems somehow to be trying to make sense of the world. Khader is frankly cynical, even manipulative, knows exactly what he thinks and why he thinks so but his cynicism also masks a certain kind of idealism - he wants his kids to study in the US and live there.

The film-makers try hard to be objective though its always very clear whose side they are on. But in a way, there are no sides in Control Room, just fundamentally irreconciliable points of view. Lt Rushing, in the most touching moment of the film, admits to the fact that he was disturbed by the gruesome footage showing dead American soldiers but not so much by the footage of dead Iraqis. He wonders why this was so - the slightly bewildered look on his face is something that I will not forget, more so, since questions like these confront most of us today. The other big moment in the film comes when Khader candidly admits that he would gladly exchange the "Arab nightmare for the American dream". Its a funny moment but theres never a doubt that the man means it. Theres another such "aha" moment when Hassan Ibrahim, a journalist, tells Rushing that Arabs connect every image of a foreign army in their capitals with the Isareli-Palestine conflict - something that Rushing (and me too) had never thought before. To me, nothing could be more distant than the war in Iraq and West Asia conflict.

I have stopped regular television consumption a long while ago (My TV viewing since 1996 has been fairly erratic) but Control Room reminded me more than anything else how television coverage had the immediacy that newspapers lack. War coverage, especially through newspapers, turns into statistics of casualties and wounded. Television makes the casualties real though I guess, they could never be as real to a viewer sitting and watching in the comfort of his living room as they are to people in them.

Sometimes the arguments in Control Room become farcical even as they are striking. Lt Rushing, in an argument with the journalist Hassan Ibrahim, says that the US spent more money on the precision bombs when hell, they might as well have bombed Iraq with the kind of bombing that happened to Germany and Japan in the twilight of WWII. And I thought: Does he think Iraqis appreciate that? But in a way, Lt Rushing has a point. Television coverage, has certainly helped make war more humane (or at least the appearance of being more humane). But the movie's strength is that it never lets you forget that war is a messy business.

I was not really convinced that the US actually bombed Al Jazeera offices in Baghdad - it seems like a really dumb and obvious thing to do, even if they needed Baghdad to be cleared of all journalists to stage-manage (??) the toppling of Saddam's statue. But the movie did make me appreciate Al Jazeera a little bit more (I've never watched the channel, actually but I didn't really think much of it before). To be an independent news channel in the Arab world - where democracy as such doesn't exist - and to cover the momentous events now unfolding there, is one hell of a task.